Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Sculpture : The Best Art Bargain?

I know that talking about art in terms of "bargains" or other commerce terminology will irk a good chunk of folks out there, but for those collectors without trust funds, information about spending one's art-buying budget wisely is like manna from heaven. Therefore I was personally thrilled, while reading, to have confirmed what I've been noticing for a few years now about sculpture being remarkably undervalued in comparison to photography and especially painting:

According to Peter Rathbone, senior vice president and director of the American paintings and sculpture department at Sotheby’s, although lower-priced paintings are more numerous than affordable three-dimensional pieces, sculpture bargains usually pack more of a punch dollar-for-dollar when it comes to quality.

“If you find a first-rate modern piece of sculpture, it may well cost you a lot less than a painting of equal quality,” he said, though he added that exact numeric comparisons are hard to make.

For years I've assumed this disparity was related more to what I think of as the home-space law of diminishing returns (i.e., if you have to buy a bigger apartment to house your sculpture, what kind of bargain was it?), especially in New York, but the article suggests another factor I hadn't considered:

Second, sculpture is a less obvious choice for collectors. According to [Michael Hackett, co-director of the San Francisco-based Hackett-Freedman Gallery], most people begin collecting art by acquiring a two-dimensional work, and then they continue to purchase works in the medium of their first purchase.
Then however, the article offers a rationale that seems counter-intuitive to me:

Finally, there are simply many more painters than sculptors. This is partially because of the voracious demand for two-dimensional works and partially because sculpture tends to be more difficult, costly, and time consuming for artists.

“It’s more difficult to create successful sculpture than it is to create successful paintings,” Hackett said. “There are fewer great sculptors than there are great painters. For every Richard Serra, there are at least 20 quality painters.”
But that would suggest less supply for sculpture, which one would expect to increase the demand (and therefore the price), so I'm not sure that explanation makes market sense. I think the "voracious demand for two-dimensional work" is related to space considerations, not the paucity of great sculptors. I know plenty of excellent sculptors who working other full-time jobs to be able to afford their studio practice (when they get to it). No, I think that final notion is misguided. There may be more painters exhibited in galleries, but I don't see, in my travels through the studios of the metropolitan area, any great disparity in the number of painters versus sculptors. Perhaps it's because I'm drawn to sculpture and seek it out, but I don't think so. (Other New York studio visitors? Your sense of this question?)

But back to the article's central premise, which I totally agree with: sculpture in general is undervalued and provides a high return with regards to quality in the current market. So if you have the space, remember, real collectors buy quality.

Labels: Collecting


Blogger patsplat said...

The cost of ownership is higher for sculpture. The first obvious cost is storage. There can be the doubt about whether a sculpter's materials are archival. Also installation -- what does it take to move or install the sculpture in a new space.

The interesting thing is that it can become a privledge to afford the ownership costs of sculpture.

These comments may apply to other fields, like digital art.

5/16/2007 09:19:00 AM  
Blogger Mark said...

The cost of production for many works make it even more difficult to make a profit at all. Many sculptors are professional dumpser divers and scavengers with a solid list of contacts for free materials. If you are considering casting, if you can't do it yourself you'd better have pre-sales or deep pockets.

5/16/2007 09:39:00 AM  
Anonymous ml said...

And storage isn't just a problem for the collectors. It is a serious problem for the artists producing the work. If it doesn't sell, you not only have to swallow the production costs but give it eternal storage. In NY, that adds up. Hard to produce sculpture in a cost effective way. Even in LA, many of the sculptures I see are made with styrofoam, and other light, inexpensive materials.

5/16/2007 12:17:00 PM  
Blogger fisher6000 said...


I went on a tour of three collections upstate last summer, all of which were heavily invested in sculpture.

One was adopting the "sculpture park" idea to their ginormous backyard, and was interested in steel stone and bronze.

One had huge resources re: storage, and rented a space in which to do shows of the work.

The interesting couple lived with a lot of work, a lot of different kinds of work, and they had a specific interest in inherent vice, or the fact that this stuff changes over time.

In other words, they were interested in artists like Dove Bradshaw and Andy Goldsworthy (whose works are choreographed in terms of decay), as well as contemporary artists who are working in ephemeral media.

And they were not deluding themselves about the fact that what they are buying is like flowers and not like the Mona Lisa.

That decay and change interested them on an existential level.

5/16/2007 06:44:00 PM  
Anonymous derek said...

in response to ml's comment...

As a sculptor I know of all the issues (storage, material cost, etc.) If these "problems" are leading sculptors to use cheap, disposable materials, then what does that say about the direction of the practice?

The best work I encounter is either Installation, sound-based, site specific, or somewhere in between. Perhaps art that is worthwhile to make and to have comes with a pricetag for integrity.

Personally, I try not to limit myself to one mode or medium. I would rather think of myself as an artist than a sculptor. One who can find a way to exploit many directions to make art. When my ship comes in and I can afford to make a collosal sculpture, I will. In the meantime there is a lot of ground I can cover using sound, photography, maquettes, and drawings...

5/18/2007 05:09:00 PM  

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